Will The Mike Leach Offense Really Work Over A 10-game SEC Schedule?

Mike Leach's Mississippi State team threw for a record 623 yards in his first game as an SEC head coach.Derick E. Hingle/USA Today

Tony Barnhart

It was, said Gary Danielson of CBS, “The Perfect Storm.”

Last Saturday LSU opened the 2020 season at home and fielded a team that only returned five starters from the historic 15-0 national champion of the year before. The Tigers lost 14 players to the NFL Draft and then Biletnikoff Award winner J’Marr Chase decided to opt out of this season. Also leaving this summer were defensive tackler Tyler Shelvin and defensive back Kary Vincent.

The usual overwhelming crowd of 100,000-plus at Tiger Stadium was down to only 25 percent of capacity. There was no home field advantage.

Mississippi State had a veteran quarterback, Stanford transfer K.J. Costello, and LSU did not in junior Myles Brennan, who served as a backup to Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow the past two seasons.

And finally there was the X-factor. New Mississippi State coach Mike Leach, the Master of the Air Raid offense, threw in some wrinkles for which new LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini was clearly not prepared.

Put it all together and Costello throws for an SEC-record 623 yards and Mississippi State stuns No. 6 LSU 44-34. It was the first time that a defending national champion had lost its season opener since No. 5 Michigan lost at No. 22 Notre Dame 36-20 on Sept. 5, 1998.

“I was more surprised (by that score) than I have been in a long, long time,” said Danielson, who called the game for CBS. “I thought that no matter how many guys LSU lost they would be okay.

“But it just goes to show you, it’s really good to have a veteran quarterback.”

The chart below puts what Costello did into a historic context:

MOST PASSING YARDS IN A GAME BY A SEC QUARTERBACK

Yards…Name…………………..School…………………..Opponent….Year

623…K.J. Costello……………..Miss. State……………vs. LSU……….2020

544….Eric Zeier………………...Georgia………………..vs. S. Miss…..1993

530….Tyler Bray…………………Tennessee…………… vs. Troy……..2012

528….Jared Lorenzen………….Kentucky……………..vs Georgia…2000

528….Rohan Davey………………LSU……………………vs. Alabama..2001

523…Peyton Manning………….Tennessee…..…vs. Kentucky…..1997

The score sent shock waves throughout the country. That’s because the conventional wisdom concerning the Mike Leach offense is that it will put up a lot of yards and points against average teams but will struggle against fast, athletic defenses. Yes, LSU lost a lot on both sides of the ball but that roster is still filled with four-star and five-star athletes.

Joel Klatt, the lead college football analyst for FOX Sports, attributed part of Saturday’s outcome to the fact that while Leach’s offense may look complicated, it really isn’t. That was good for Costello, who didn’t arrive on campus until June.

“Leach is really the last guy who runs the pure Air Raid offense,” said Klatt. “It is so simple and so basic that it was easy for a veteran guy like Costello to learn.

“But I will say this. K.J. Costello didn’t have 100,000 fans to deal with. I just wonder what it would have been like (for him) with 100,000 loud fans.”

Danielson said he was not surprised by what Costello did on Saturday. But what was equally impressive was how the rest of the Mississippi State team handled the situation.

“I really didn’t wonder about what K.J. Costello would do but I thought the other 21 guys kept up their end and that allowed K.J. to get hot,” said Danielson.

Danielson also pointed out that LSU was without its best pass defender Derek Stingley, Jr., who had an undisclosed illness.

"Got to believe he might have been a touchdown to 10-point difference," he said.

And here is another factor that cannot be overlooked.

For a host of reasons triggered by the daily struggle to manage COVID-19 this is going to be an unconventional season. The Big 12 went 0-3 against the Sun Belt on Sept. 5. Last Saturday Oklahoma lost to Kansas State and Texas needed to rally to beat Texas Tech in overtime.

“I just think we’re going to see some weird outcomes this season,” said Klatt. “We just need to get used to the idea that these things are going to happen.”

So this all begs the question: Are we overreacting to one game (probably) or can this Mississippi State offense put up big numbers through the entire 10-game SEC schedule?

Former UCLA, Colorado, and Washington head coach Rick Neuheisel believes that scheme, maybe even more than athleticism, has a lot to do with successfully defending Leach’s system.

“This offense is built to throw the ball on every down,” said Neuheisel, now an analyst with CBS Sports. “It’s about guys running fades and crossing routes in space. It’s almost impossible to cover, especially if you stick with man-to-man coverage.”

Which LSU and Pelini essentially did.

Neuheisel points to former Washington Coach Chris Petersen who faced Leach six times when Leach was at Washington State.

In each of those six games Washington held Washington State to 17 points or fewer. The Cougars were also held to less than 400 yards of total offense in each games. Washington State also committed three or more turnovers in each of those six games.

Petersen was 6-0 in those games against Leach, including a 28-15 win by No. 16 Washington over No. 7 Washington State in Pullman in 2018. Going into that Apple Cup Washington State was 11-1 with only a 39-36 loss to USC. It was the lowest point total for a game that Washington State had all season. The Cougars came into the game averaging 40.5 points.

To be fair, the game was played in snowy conditions.

According to media reports of the game, Washington simply did what it always did against Washington State. It gave up the short pass underneath and then tackled well. In that game Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew completed 26 of 35 passes but averaged only 5.8 yards per completion.

In last Saturday’s game with LSU, Mississippi State averaged 10.38 yards per completion.

That sound you hear is SEC defensive coordinators running to get those Washington vs. Washington State game videos.

So now what happens?

Mississippi State should be fine on Saturday at Arkansas and then the Bulldogs have to go to Kentucky, which returns seven of the top nine tacklers from a defense that was No. 14 nationally in scoring defense. Then Texas A&M, which only scored 17 against Vanderbilt, comes to Starkville. Mississippi State could be 4-0 when it goes to Alabama on Oct. 31.

Stay tuned. This is going to be fun. 

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Tony Barnhart

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